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Beauty Blog: From Mud to Max Factor

Whether we choose to admit it or not, every one of us has an innate desire to be desirable. No one is indifferent to the short-lived sensory pleasure – or pain – of looking in the mirror, and even the staunchest of feminists would argue that a little grooming goes a long way in the attractiveness stakes! Beauty comprises an unmistakable chunk of our modern sensibility, but at what point did we resolve that our ordinary, blank canvas selves aren’t good enough? At what point did we adopt the ‘A woman without paint is like food without salt’ rubbish thinking of Roman philosopher, Plautus?

Don’t get me wrong, I love playing around with makeup just as much, if not more than the next girl, but it struck me the other morning (after stumbling home from Halo and wiping off a desperately dishevelled shimmery eye/burgundy lip combo) that painting our faces is just plain weird and perhaps even excessive. What’s more is that this ritual is seldom regarded as an oddity – most of us indulge in some level of daily primping without so much as a thought or hesitation, myself included. Men everywhere have also been known to fawn over these efforts with a similar lack of contemplation.

Makeup for some is experimental, fun and confidence boosting, and for others its use is denigrated as nothing more than a professional or social requisite. Whatever your cosmetic conviction though, the fact is womankind have been playing around with image ever since people became self-aware. Today we subscribe to a ‘room for improvement’ belief system, and as it turns out, we’re not the only ones. This logic spans thousands of years of human history and almost every society on Earth.

 Our fascination with all things beautifying can be traced back to Ancient Egypt, although some contend that our cosmos of cosmetics dates back even earlier than this. Up and down the Nile, copper mineral pastes were applied to the face for ‘colour and contrast,’ and Cleopatra herself supposedly concocted a lipstick using ground carmine beetles. Egyptians are also credited with developing the first kohl eyeliner – an original recipe of metal, lead, copper, ash, and burnt almonds.

The history of makeup becomes a little less colourful as time goes on, quite literally. Gunning for a renaissance since the Greco-Roman era, alabaster skin enjoyed unprecedented popularity in the Middle Ages through to the end of the 19th century. Society women wore egg whites over their faces to create the appearance of a china doll complexion, while others – including Queen Elizabeth 1 – painted their necks and chests with a lead and vinegar mixture known as ceruse. Take heed though ladies, while we might like to joke about suffering for beauty’s sake, women who used this white lead pigment often ended up with muscle paralysis… or in their graves!

The dawning of the 20th century saw us (thankfully) swap toxicity for publicity. Makeup for the masses was born with a little help from Polish wig designer, Max Factor, who developed a line of greasepaint products for Hollywood’s elite that would forever shift the standards of Western beauty. Maybelline, Revlon and other makeup powerhouses quickly followed suit in the coming years, each claiming their ‘scientifically-advanced’ lip-glosses, foundations and eyelash curlers could help transform mere mortals into majestic movie stars. The public was sold instantly.

Cosmetics are as old as vanity itself – and we haven’t looked back since.

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